Eat Like a Syrian Refugee

Refugees? Again?

Maybe you are following this blog because you wanted to read about Beirut and all it has to offer. Or because you and I know each other personally, and you wanted to stay in virtual touch, thinking you’d hear about me and hubby and the kids and our adventures.

Instead you keep getting these posts that circle back to Syrian refugees.

I hope you’re not getting tired of it.

Development workers and non-profit fundraisers call it “donor fatigue” – when no one wants to hear any more about the cause they already helped. I don’t know if that’s what it is called in this case, when it’s not a donor or a group of donors, but an entire country, hosting a refugee population that is now equal in number to a quarter of its own population. But it’s understandable that people are feeling the strain. Syrians continue to flow into Lebanon, and rents continue to go up, wages continue to go down. Grumbling has begun. And yet… borders remain open, refugees are not condemned to a camp, they can access schools and medical services. Indeed, most Lebanese continue to demonstrate an incredible generosity of spirit. As the mayor of one Lebanese town told Ninette Kelly, representative in Lebanon of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,

You call them refugees, we call them neighbors.

The church I attend had a special program for kids during the month of October, to try and help them understand what all the grown-ups are always talking about, to help them (along with us parents!) better understand what refugees confront.

Week 1: They talked about what the term refugee means (someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence), and then imagined what they would take if they were forced to leave home in a hurry, taking only what can fit in a backpack. It was hard, but I convinced my kids that a couple pairs each of clean underwear and socks would be just as important as the special toys they had chosen.

Week 2: What does it mean to have no place to stay? The assignment for the week was to build a shelter out of cardboard and plastic bags and sticks. Given the dearth of trees within the Beirut city limits, the kids were allowed to use broom handles in lieu of sticks.

Week 3: What can you do for food? While rations for refugees vary according to where they are and who is handing them out, the bare minimum for one day is apparently 400 grams of rice, 50 grams of lentils and 50 grams of cooking oil (which came in the form of some kind of yucky hydrogenated spread in a baggie). Water to drink. Each child was given one day’s ration, and challenged to eat only that food for one day.

“Or for just one meal,” my daughter pointed out. “They said to try it for one day, or for one meal.”

“But if we do it for just one meal, then there’s no challenge,” responded my son.

“That’s right,” I said enthusiastically. “Let’s take up the challenge.”

The kids each got a Tupperware full of rice and lentils for lunch, and a smaller Tupperware of the same for their snack. When they came home from school, my son told me that he’d had the best food that day.

“Really??” The rice was barely speckled with miniscule lentils, lacked all but a sprinkle of salt, and was utterly bland. Nothing like mujaddara, the delicious rice and lentils the Lebanese typically eat, abundant with plump lentils, scented with cumin and topped with caramelized onions.

“Yeah, I told my friends I didn’t have any food, and they gave me all kinds of things – Oreos, Biskolata (a chocolate-dipped cookie), fruit roll-ups… ”

Had he defeated the purpose of the exercise? Receiving food you don’t like and finding a way to obtain an alternative – it was probably perfectly in tune with the challenges a refugee might face and how he or she might overcome them.  I rolled my eyes, but appreciated his resourcefulness.

My daughter was less happy about the experience. She had dutifully eaten rice and lentils, rice and lentils, rice and lentils.

Then we sat down to dinner in front of another bowl of rice and lentils.

“Not again!”

“We get it already!”

“But this is the challenge,” I answered, trying to muster an enthusiasm about these lousy rice and lentils that I just wasn’t feeling. It was only two meals in a row, and I was sick of it too. But I held firm. Over dinner we talked about people beyond refugees as well. In Honduras, where we lived prior to Lebanon, more than two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, and roughly 46 percent of people live in extreme poverty (surviving on less than US$1.25 per day). Their staple diet is rice and red beans. Rice and beans, rice and beans, rice and beans. There’s probably a study by a UN agency somewhere that says what percentage of the world survives on a diet primarily of rice and legumes, and I’m sure it’s a lot.

You couldn’t say that we had experienced what it is to be a refugee or to live in extreme poverty, as we’d had a regular breakfast (I’d even served extra fruit, to make up for the lack of it the rest of the day), we hadn’t had to actually sleep in a makeshift shelter, and we couldn’t shake the knowledge that if we had to fit everything into a backpack, we are fortunate enough to be able to buy replacements for the things we most need. But I hope the experience did help us to better appreciate all that we do have, to be more sensitive to the plight of those in need, and most importantly, to be more motivated and proactive in responding to those needs.

It’ll be a while before I can serve the kids rice and lentils again though.

Hiking in Lebanon – Horsh Ehden

Last week Lebanon celebrated Eid-al-Adha, which (according to Wikipedia) honors the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his young son as an act of submission to God’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead. It’s one of the most important Muslim holidays of the year. My husband only had one day off from work, but my kids had four (!) off from school, so I was determined to make the most of it.

(Wikipedia also revealed that Eid-al-Adha lasts four days – I guess that’s why the school break stretched out so long.)

Anyway, the official day off for Eid was last Tuesday, so I convinced my husband to leave work early on Monday, and we packed the kids into the car and drove north to the town of Ehden. It’s only about 90 minutes away, but when you live in a postage-stamp country, 90 minutes seems farther than one can manage in a day trip, so we had decided to stay the night.

We turned east off the highway just a few miles before Tripoli – a city we have yet to visit because of the on and off fighting that takes place there as a spillover from the war in Syria. We could see Tripoli from the highway as we drove up into the mountains. From a distance it looked calm and lovely.

We reached Ehden, which could pass for a mountain town in Italy or Croatia – narrow winding streets, little businesses around a main plaza, a chapel reputed to be the oldest Maronite church in Lebanon

St. Mama Chapel, dating from 749 A.D.

There are an inordinate number of hotels for such a tiny town, reflecting its popularity as a summer destination to escape from the heat. It was “only” in the 80s when we left Beirut, but escape from the heat we did – it was downright cold when we reached Ehden, and we were all happy to have taken sweaters along at the last minute.

The hotel seemed outrageously overpriced by American/European standards, but it’s par for the course in Lebanon (apparently dramatically declining numbers of wealthy Gulf tourists over the past year and a half don’t lead hoteliers to lower prices by much). It was charming though, a traditional Lebanese home renovated into a boutique hotel right on the square. (The location wasn’t so fun at 3am when the last of the Eid revelers were shouting to one another across the square, but it was nice when we went for a walk in the evening.)

Because it was now off-season, the hotel’s restaurant was closed. The lovely staff instead walked us over to a tiny, two-table hole-in-the-wall called Abou Simon’s. Abou Simon (Simon’s Father) is a single older guy (widower? divorcée? it seemed impertinent to ask) who makes his own pickles and jams, and barbecues up any number of kebabs over coals lit outside the shop, without ever removing his plaid tweed blazer. We were all slightly strained as the hotel staff dropped us off, because his English was as limited as our French. Then we discovered that he had lived for more than a decade in Venezuela. With relief we all switched to Spanish, and by the end of the meal (comprised of vegetables, cheeses, skewers of chicken, mutton and meatballs, all ultra-fresh and ultra-delicious), we were fast friends.

The next day we headed to Horsh Ehden, a nature reserve, for a hike. Being that we were in the mountains, the first hour or so was tortuously uphill (if you’re thinking about going and won’t be hiking with a reluctant eight-year-old, note that the first part takes half the time to hike). Our efforts were rewarded with beautiful scenery of deciduous trees that had turned golden with the season, with a forest of Lebanon’s famed cedars as the backdrop.

After all that hiking we were famished, but wanted to start towards home. We descended from the mountains to the sea, and got as far as the seaside town of Batroun. At first I wished that I’d packed my kids’ swim suits, but I shouldn’t have worried. My daughter wasn’t about to let anything stop her, and after eating decided to take a dip in the sea just as she was, sneakers and all. Sweaters in the evening, and swimmers the next day. A glorious day.